There was a time when PC gaming was tied to the desk. Every game, from puzzling adventures to heart-pounding shooters, could be enjoyed only from the same, stodgy, often uncomfortable position. The classic joke of a PC gamer playing from the corner of a basement had a bit of truth to it. It was a hobby that required isolation.
Thankfully, that has changed in recent years. Computers like the MSI Trident, Alienware Alpha, and Zotac Zbox have bridged the gap. They all fit comfortably alongside a PlayStation 4 – many are smaller, in fact – and they offer all the perks of a PC. These console-like computers can be a gamer’s best friend, and their worst enemy.
The performance is unparalleled…
The PC has always enjoyed a performance edge over console hardware, and it’s not restricted to big, heavy desktops. Zotac’s Magnus EN1080K, for instance, packs a seventh-generation Intel processor with Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080, a graphics chip that pushes almost nine teraflops of raw computer power. That easily bests even the upcoming Xbox Scorpio, and it’s about five times more powerful than a standard PlayStation 4. Even Alienware’s Alpha, the most modestly equipped of its peers, beats the Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 in raw performance.
Visually, it pays off. PC titles usually offer more detailed textures, better post-process effects, superior anti-aliasing, and more realistic shadows. Despite that, games usually run more quickly on PC. Consoles almost always target 30 frames per second, while the PC can regularly flex its muscles and obtain 60 FPS or higher. The net result is more attractive, more fluid gameplay.
…but so is the price.
Even the PlayStation 4 Pro retails for just $400. While that’s a lot to some console gamers, it’s chump change in the PC world, where even the Alienware Alpha starts at $500. The MSI Trident 3 we recently reviewed was powerful, but it also retails for $1,300. Top-of-the-line custom models, like Origin’s Chronos, can top $3,000.
The problem is obvious. That’s a lot of money. A living room PC may beat the visual quality of a console, but does it matter enough to justify a price that’s several times higher? Most people will answer no. Even enthusiasts find it hard to tolerate. After all, hardcore PC gamers are guaranteed to already own a fast desktop, and they’re not eager to buy the same hardware twice.
The game library is incredible…
More games come to PC in most genres, and entire genres don’t appear on console.
Of course, there’s more to price than just the hardware. Games are also expensive, and there, PC titles tend to have an edge. They go on sale more frequently, through a wider variety of stores. New titles hit $20 on Steam or Humble Bundle way before they plummet to the same lows on Amazon or the PlayStation Store.
This isn’t because of goodwill towards PC gamers, of course. Prices trend low because there’s a ton of competition. More games come to PC in most genres, and entire genres that don’t appear on console. MOBAs, the world’s most popular game genre, is almost entirely missing on console. On PC, there’s plenty to choose from. The same can be said of real-time and turn-based strategy, massively multiplayer games, hardcore racing simulators.
…but the controls can suck.
Microsoft’s wise decision to make Xbox controllers work with Windows has unified the controls of games that debut on both platforms. That’s a big deal, and it makes most top-tier games playable from the couch no matter what’s running them.
Yet there are still limitations. In some cases, it’s due to the superiority of native PC controls. You can play a shooter on a living room console, controller in hand, and it works alright in single-player. Jump online, though, and you’ll be dead faster than you can say “thumbsticks suck.”
Other games don’t support couch-friendly controls in any form. This is true of most strategy games, a great number of PC-only indie games, and some racing titles. Yes, you can play from your couch with a wireless mouse. But you probably don’t want to. We’ve tried it many times, and it’s a great way to screw up your shoulders or neck. Keyboards and mice were designed to be used by an office worker sitting upright in a desk chair, not a gamer slouching comfortably on a couch.
The versatility can’t be matched…
Even if it’s no fun to use a keyboard and mouse from the couch, you’ll still want to hook them up. Why? Simple. A living room PC can do so much more than game. Just like a desktop or laptop, a living room PC can be used for almost any task imaginable, from streaming live sports, to viewing PowerPoint presentations.
In fact, a living room PC with a decent wireless mouse can replace almost every other device found in a home theater. Forget about a Roku or Chromecast. Forget about your home DVR. Forget about plugging in a USB drive to view family photos. In short, a living room PC is still a PC, and that means it can be adapted for many tasks.
…but the annoyances are hard to tolerate.
Unfortunately, a living room PC is still a PC, and that means it suffers from all the usual bugs and annoyances. An email notification is never going to interrupt a suspenseful episode of Game of Thrones on Roku, but that’ll become a frequent occurrence on PC. You’ll have to update with all the usual updates, as well, so get used to the seeing the Windows 10 Update screen.
It remains true that bugs are more common on a computer than a game console.
And then you must deal with the bugs. Console fans often overstate the problems found on PC, and modern game consoles aren’t immune to crashing, but it remains true that bugs are more common on a computer than a game console. We aren’t just talking about hard crashes, which are rare. Instead, it’s the small stuff that becomes an issue. A game might fail to load properly because it wasn’t run in administrator mode, the Wi-Fi adapter might occasionally lose connection, or a USB port might go on the fritz.
Consoles may have problems, but they tend to be rudimentary. A thing works, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then a simple reset usually fixes it. If that doesn’t work, then the console is likely broken, or the game itself is bugged. The rabbit hole of troubleshooting goes much deeper on PC, and that can become an unwanted time-sink.
Beware the living room PC, embrace the living room PC
We say all this as a warning. Buying a PC as a console replacement may seem like a good idea, and it does have its benefits. Yet there are also a lot of issues, none of which are easy to resolve. Alienware, MSI, or Zotac can do little to fix the problems above. The issues – at least for now – are inherent to the PC experience, baked into the operating system, or the way computers are constructed.
If you want to buy a living room PC, do it. Just make sure you’re doing it because you want a gaming PC in your living room, and not because you want a more powerful version of a console.